What is hearing loss and what can you do about it?
Have trouble following conversations in a noisy room? You might be one of the many Australians affected by hearing loss.
Hearing loss affects an estimated one in six Australians, reports Better Health Victoria. Because hearing loss can make conversation difficult, some people experience a loss of self-confidence, social withdrawal, emotional problems and even fewer work and study opportunities.
And it’s not just older people who report hearing loss – other factors like where you work, what you do for fun and your family history can increase your risk.
Hearing loss usually can’t be reversed, but there are treatments available that can improve your hearing and your quality of life.
What is hearing loss?
There are three main parts of the ear: the outer ear, middle ear and inner ear. When we hear a sound, sound waves pass through the outer ear, causing vibrations in the eardrum. Next, the middle ear strengthens the vibrations as they enter the inner ear, which is called the cochlea. In the cochlea, thousands of tiny hairs help your brain translate sound vibrations into sound. When this process is interrupted, hearing loss can occur.
Hearing loss falls into two main categories. Conductive hearing loss happens when there’s a problem with the outer or middle ear and “the amount of sound that gets to the cochlea is greatly diminished”, explains Daniel Pistritto, a clinical audiometrist from Connect Hearing.
With sensorineural hearing loss, there are problems with sound quality as well as volume. Damage to the cochlea or auditory nerve – which carries hearing information between the cochlea and the brain – means the inner ear has trouble sending sound signals to the brain.
“It’s no longer just a matter of volume – it really becomes a clarity issue as sound can become muffled,” Daniel says.
You can also have a combination of the two.
Sudden hearing loss is an unexplained, rapid loss of hearing that typically affects only one ear. See your doctor straight away if you experience sudden hearing loss.
Causes of hearing loss
Hearing loss can happen from birth, but the risk increases as we get older because the inner ear gradually deteriorates.
“From about the age of 40, as part of the ageing process, we slowly start to lose our hearing,” Daniel says.
About 75% of Australians aged over 70 are affected by significant hearing loss, estimates the Garvan Institute.
Exposure to loud noises can also damage the cells of your inner ear. Working in noisy environments like construction sites, live music venues, farms and factories, as well as explosive noises from motorcycles, firearms and very loud music, can harm your hearing.
“Noise damage is a big one – the louder the noise is, the more damage it can cause,” Daniel says.
Other causes of hearing loss can include:
- ear infections, a build-up of ear wax, a punctured ear drum, fluid in the ear or abnormal bone growth in the ear (which is called otosclerosis)
- genetics – your family history may increase your risk of hearing loss
- some medications including aspirin, some antibiotics and some cancer drugs
- head injuries
- illnesses that result in a high fever like meningitis.
Hearing loss symptoms
Hearing loss often happens gradually – so gradually, in fact, that most people have lost around 60% of their hearing range by the time the condition is diagnosed. For many people, Daniel says the first sign of hearing loss is partners, family and friends noticing a change in your hearing.
“Often it’s the people close to you asking if you’re okay,” he says. “They might notice you're always saying ‘pardon?’ or you’re turning the TV up louder.”
You might also notice you have other hearing loss symptoms, like:
- having trouble hearing in noisy or crowded environments
- often asking other people to speak more slowly or loudly
- hearing sounds as muffled
- not hearing your phone or the doorbell ring.
Tinnitus – noises or ringing in your ears when there’s no physical source of noise – is another red flag, says Daniel. “It might just come out of the blue, and all of a sudden you’re getting a ringing through the ears.”
If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms, see your GP who may recommend you see an audiologist. Hearing loss can be diagnosed in clinic, with a hearing test where sound is transmitted through headphones at different frequencies and volumes to identify what’s audible in each ear. You can also complete an online speech perception test in the comfort of your own home.
Treatments for hearing loss
Daniel says the stigma of hearing loss means many people wait a long time before seeking help for hearing loss. “They see hearing loss as being a sign they’re getting on in age and that it's something that only impacts older people.”
He says seeing your doctor sooner can help improve your quality of life – and reduce the stigma.
“Own your hearing difficulties and tell people, ‘This is how hearing loss is impacting me. This is how what you're doing at the moment is making it harder for me’. Helping the other person to understand helps you to hear better as well.”
Hearing loss is usually permanent, and treatment focuses on improving the hearing you have. Daniel says hearing aids, which Connect Hearing specialises in, can help improve your hearing by amplifying sounds in your ear. There are lots of different types of hearing aids and your audiologist can help you figure out which type is best for you.
Hearing aids work best in quiet, one-on-one situations. Daniels says they are particularly helpful for conductive hearing loss as they provide extra volume.
For sensorineural hearing loss, Daniel says, “it’s a little bit more difficult because it becomes a clarity issue. Hearing aids will definitely help, but there may still be some deficit and you may need to rely on the other person facing you when they’re talking and finding a quieter environment to talk.”
Some types of hearing loss can be treated with surgery. If your hearing loss is particularly severe and hearing aids aren’t effective, a cochlear implant – which directly stimulates the hearing nerve – may be another option.
Prevention, as they say, is better than cure, and Daniel says this is especially true of hearing loss.
“If you're exposed to constant noise, wear hearing protection, give yourself regular breaks, try to limit the amount of exposure and keep the volume as low as you possibly can,” he says.
Save your hearing
Through our partnership with Connect Hearing, HCF members can get up to 100% back* or a reduced cost on a range of high-quality hearing aids (1 every 3 years).
First published June 2021
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